4,000 Miles of Track

As in favor as I am of improving rail transport in the United States, I can’t say I’m overly impressed by President Obama’s proposal to build or refurbish 4,000 miles of track:

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama is asking Congress to approve at least $50 billion in long-term investments in the nation’s roads, railways and runways in a pre-election effort to show he’s trying to stimulate the sputtering economy.

The infrastructure investments are part of a package of targeted proposals the White House announced on Monday. With November’s elections for control of Congress approaching, Obama planned to discuss the proposal later Monday at a Labor Day event in Milwaukee.


The officials said the initial $50 billion would be the beginning of a six-year program of transportation improvements, but they did not give an overall figure. The proposal has a longer-range focus than last year’s economic stimulus bill, which was more targeted on immediate job creation.

The goals of the infrastructure plan include: rebuilding 150,000 miles of roads; constructing and maintaining 4,000 miles of railways, enough to go coast-to-coast; shorter, high speed rail projects; and rehabilitating or reconstructing 150 miles of airport runways, while also installing a next generation air navigation system designed to reduce travel times and delays.

I know it sounds like a lot but it’s a spit in the ocean. As of 2008 the United States had 120,000 active miles of Class I freight track. When you add passenger track and other track we’ve got nearly a quarter million miles of track. 4,000 miles is just a couple of percent of that.

In 1942 we had a half million miles of railroad track in the United States. I weep whenever I see old freight track being pulled up for scrap, the roadbeds being turned to other uses.

Do we really believe that highway and air traffic are the transport of the future? Quite to the contrary I don’t think we’d see truck transport at the level it is today without its massive subsidies. The raw cost of truck transport is a multiple of rail or barge transport.

In current dollars refurbishing track costs about $350,000 per mile (off hand I’d guess it would be considerably more in cities). Let’s just guesstimate the cost to rehab at $1 million per mile. Estimating the cost of roads is tricky, as the federal estimation guidelines suggest. Say between $1 million and $80 million per mile (that’s what H-3 cost). That would mean that the President is planning to spend $4 billion on rail, probably the same amount on runways, and $42 billion on highways.

I don’t think this scattershot approach to transport makes any economic sense but it makes all of the political sense in the world. It reminds me of Mayor Daley’s spreading a little money around in the wards before a mayoral and aldermanic election. Not only does it get the incumbent members of the City Council behind you, it looks good to the voters without actually changing how the real money is being spent.

5 comments… add one
  • steve Link

    My son was fascinated with trains when younger. We spent hours walking along old deserted tracks scavenging track parts just dumped by the tracks. Lot of spikes especially.

    I think that trying to emphasize rail over trucking at this point would be politically costly. Too easy to demagogue.

  • Andy Link

    Actually, I’m not sure it even makes much political sense. This President has a bad habit of creating expectations and then failing to meet them. He’s going to have to sell this bill like a used lemon to get it passed and the result will be a whole lot of nothing with some dubious claims about how it helped after-the-fact.

    It’s also disappointing how the President seems to be living in the 1930’s. If you’re going to invest in infrastructure to stimulate the economy, why not invest in 21st century infrastructure and not 19th and 20th century infrastructure? How will building more roads boost the economy? I guess if the goal is to boost (mostly foreign) car sales, it might do something.

    Meanwhile, we’re still operating with a 1950’s air traffic control system. Our internet infrastructure should be much larger, faster and more robust. Or electrical infrastructure will need upgrading to account for new energy sources and to improve reliability and resiliency.

  • If you’re going to invest in infrastructure to stimulate the economy, why not invest in 21st century infrastructure and not 19th and 20th century infrastructure?

    My point precisely. I’ve made my pitch for a federal project on energy infrastructure in previous posts. That’s not something that will be addressed by the private sector.

    There’s a basic question about roads: what do you expect their value to be over their productive life? That involves assumptions about the price of oil. Whether the price of oil is half what it is now, the same as it is now, or double what it is now in real terms in ten or twenty years will affect road usage.

    I think that putting more federal money into roads is a sucker’s bet but I also think that intelligent people can differ on the subject.

    I note in passing that all of the projects proposed by the president will pay Davis-Bacon wages.

  • It doesn’t matter what we spend the money on, so long as the government spends it. We could just build tanks and then dump them in ocean.


  • Drew Link

    “I note in passing that all of the projects proposed by the president will pay Davis-Bacon wages.”

    Heh. Imagine that…….

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